“Doctor, does my pet look fat?” is almost as loaded a question as “Does my butt look fat?” I cringe, wondering how to delicately break the news that yes, Mrs. Leon’s dog is as big as a doghouse. I just don’t want to end up there myself.
Although tackling this question sounds like a comical situation, the obesity problem in pets in the U.S. is very real and very serious. In fact, obesity is as significant a problem for pets as it is for humans. But it can be hard to detect when you are looking at your long-haired friend or a well-feathered bird. First of all, simply seeing your little “Fifi” with adoring eyes and unconditional love can blind you to the slowly increasing size of her girth. Secondly, in a dog, cat or bird, weight is well-distributed throughout their body, so it can be harder to see that extra body fat. Animals don’t have the tell-tale waist or hip enlargements that indicate we’ve overindulged.
In a dog or cat, body condition scores are often used to describe weight. A score of one to three out of nine indicates an emaciated to thin pet. A score of four to six is average and seven and above indicates progressive obesity. When analyzing your pet, look directly down onto your pet’s back for a “squaring up” appearance, such as loss of the waist and thickening of the whole silhouette. From the side, you should be able to feel just behind the shoulder blades and estimate body condition. If you can feel ribs, but cannot see them, your pet is close to his or her ideal weight. If you can see ribs, your furry friend is too thin. If, on the other hand, you feel a fat pad behind the shoulder blades over the first few ribs, then it’s time to cut back on what your pet is eating.
When it comes to birds, things can get a little feathery, to say the least. Ideally, a pet bird is easy to handle and allows petting and scratching, so there must be trust between you. To determine a healthy weight for your bird, I recommend the purchase of a gram scale (which you can purchase online or obtain at a cooking store). Weighing your bird frequently will allow for early detection of disease. The rule is that any weight loss of 10 percent or more is a problem worthy of veterinary attention. The other end of the spectrum is, of course, a more common problem. However, within the last 10 years, avian nutritional education has been exceptional. As a result, bird owners are feeding their birds varied diets containing vegetables, legumes, meat and pellets far more often than the severely deficient, all-seed diet. Unfortunately not much has been written about the exact amounts of food each bird species needs.Thus the addition of good food has had an additive effect causing many birds to carry dangerous amounts of fat.
You may be wondering how to detect excessive fat on your bird. Fat is carried externally over the breastbone and pectoral muscle, and internally, around the liver. You can easily feel the extra fat by touching your bird’s chest routinely. The “keel” area (so named due to its boat shape) is normally composed of solid muscle that is slightly convex and peaks at the line of bone that gives it that boat shape. However, if emaciated or underweight, the muscle is difficult to feel and often the bone seems very prominent to the touch.
Oppositely, in obese birds, your pet will have “pillow keel,” which is a collection of fat over the breastbone that feels and often looks like two pillows, one over each side of the chest. The most common species affected include female cockatoos, Amazon parrots, female cockatiels and budgerigars (parakeets). African greys and lorikeets rarely carry too much extra weight.
Essentially, the biggest risk to an overweight pet depends on its species. In dogs, hip and back problems are made worse by excessive weight gain, leading to strain on the heart and liver. As a result, some dogs may even develop diabetes and Cushing’s disease (indicated by high levels of cortisol in the blood). Obese cats are at a high risk for developing diabetes and life-threatening liver diseases. Birds have a very high incidence of arteriosclerosis (not found in dogs and cats) and fatty liver disease, both of which are potentially deadly to your bird.
The great news is the repercussions of obesity are all preventable. First of all, any underlying physiological causes should be identified and addressed by your vet. Causes include hypothyroidism (low thyroid function, common among some dogs) or an overactive adrenal gland. Treatment often involves medication combined with dietary changes or restrictions and sometimes an exercise plan.
Some surprise offenders that may be making your pet fat include grains in dry food, pasta in any form, and even those cute harmless baby carrots you feed as a treat! I know…what’s left? How about love? Many people think their pets need treats. But the very definition of the word, “treat” is something experienced infrequently. Yet many well-meaning pet owners feed multiple treats on a daily basis, and then wonder why “Spot” is lumbering around with all that excess weight. Even during training sessions food rewards are not necessary. You can use love pats or play periods instead.
Do you have a multiple-pet household? The cat’s food must be put up and out of the dog’s reach. If a puppy has joined a household of adult dogs, you will need to feed all dogs from separate bowls and in some cases, separate rooms and then pick up the bowls directly after the meal is finished.
Of course the one who suffers the most from these “restrictions” and changes in lifestyle is you! Steeling yourself against those begging brown eyes and dejected attitudes (dogs), switching tails and cold contemptuous looks (the cat) or loud endless screams and the tossing of bowls and food (you guessed it… the bird) can be grueling. Or so you all seem to say.
But in my experience, many pet owners are slim, athletic people who know the value of healthy living. So why wouldn’t you want your pet to have that same quality of life? Of course you do, now that you have the knowledge. The rewards include longevity, quality of life and fewer trips to the vet.
Dr. Tiffany Margolin is the owner of Animal & Bird Wellness Center located at 2806 Townsgate Rd, #C. As an integrative veterinary center in Westlake Village, the clinic combines the best of eastern and western medical philosophy. For questions you may call 805-497-4900 or visit animalandbirdwellness.com.